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The Flare Path: Aerodromes & Charabancs

Simulation and wargame news

In a week when the misguided lexicographers behind Collins Dictionary announced that 'obsolete' terms such as 'aerodrome', 'charabanc', and 'cyclogyro' would not appear in the 2011 edition of their word guide, the obvious focus for Flare Path is inter-war flight sim Pavilioned In Splendour and 1920s bus-driving/matchmaking game Bognor or Bust!

Unfortunately, both of these titles are being developed by notorious vapourware merchants My Over-Active Imagination Soft, so it's probably best we make do instead with talk of Berlin bus opus OMSI, fast-approaching Falklands jet sim Jet Thunder, and John Tiller's fresh-off-the-LCU Squad Battles: Falklands.

The Bread of Those Early Years

Presented with a choice between an afternoon in a train museum and an afternoon in a bus museum, I'll take the locomotive ossuary every time. Given these natural inclinations, the speed at which German bus sim OMSI has got under my skin, has come as a bit of a surprise.

Despite running like a schwein on my middle-aged system, and looking distinctly brutalist at times, there is, right now, no game I'd rather be playing. The allure is complicated, but sublime physics and fabulous audio are at the root of it.

OMSI's fleet of '80s doubledeckers have an extraordinarily broad vocabulary of squeaks and whines, growls and hums. Their music morphs with every pedal press and road surface change. To drive them is to unlock a lifetime of public transport memories... school buses, night buses, London buses... close your eyes and you can almost smell the diesel, feel the vibrating window-glass cold against your cheek. In plainer terms, Marcel Kuhnt und Rüdiger Hülsmann have created some of simulation's most charismatic and evocative vehicles.

As Grundorf's (the small, framerate-friendly tutorial town) stiff-spined inhabitants and remarkably tolerant public works department will testify, the handling models are just as rich and resonant as the sound tapestries. After my first few hours at the wheel, street corners were littered with felled lamp-posts, pavements busy with passengers so disgusted by my kerb-clipping, brake-stamping antics, that they'd opted to walk to their destinations instead. Now, with a few days of driving under my belt, I've got my whiskers. I know how wide I need to go when turning right into Elsterplatz. I know when to brake when zooming round the curve at Einsteindorf Austbau. I no longer scrape the line of parked VWs and Mercedes near Krankenhaus. The buses still feel hefty and far too long, but experience and experimentation means I've come to appreciate their less obvious qualities. Their agility. Their gracefulness.

Over the weekend I think I'm going to take the plunge and switch from the 'easy' ticketing model to the 'advanced' one. Right now I deal with every ticket request the same way. A key press spits out whichever of the five ticket types is appropriate, a mouse click collects the cash, another key-dab dispenses the correct change. In the advanced mode, I'll need to listen carefully to the demands of the passengers, do some rapid mental arithmetic based on the proffered notes or coins, then quickly dish-out the appropriate pfennigs with the wonderfully tactile change machine. It sounds inconsequential - a silly distraction from the serious business of Driving The Bus - but like other inspired touches like the need to fiddle with heater settings and windows in response to passenger temperature complaints, it's actually a rather rewarding chore. Another excuse for intimacy with a surprisingly intimate sim.

Marcel and Rüdiger are currently up to their necks in university dissertations, so it might be a while before OMSI gets an official vehicle SDK to go with its route editor. Unperturbed, resourceful fans are already finding ways of expanding the exclusively MAN garage. Scattered here and there in the forum are links to several new driveables including LIAZ and Karosa machines. None of the community-made additions are quite as well crafted as the official fleet, but a year or so down the line, SDK or not, I think OMSI users won't be short of chariot choices. Who knows, maybe one day I'll even find myself negotiating winding Devon lanes at the wheel of a raucous '20s charabanc.

Tarriers Talk Harriers and Carriers 

Tiny indie outfit Thunderworks have been toiling away on Jet Thunder for over eight years now. For a while, simulation's first dedicated Falklands War flight simulation looked to have gone the way of the Warrah then a publishing deal with German sim specialists Aerosoft rekindled hopes.

With the opportunity to fly two of modern air warfare's strangest steeds, now tantalisingly close, I thought a chinwag with dev Dante De Patta and Aerosoft boss Mathijs Kok, was in order:

RPS: Are you still planning to release the sim in three parts: the base sim with flyable Harrier and Pucara first, then an add-on featuring Mirages and Sea Harriers, followed by a final expansion with more flyables, MP and a dynamic campaign?

Mathijs: Yes, that's still the plan, but development isn't going as fast as we hoped so we might have to rethink after the first release. For sure we'll continue but it might be easier just to shoot for the full game directly after that. It's most important to be as flexible as possible and give the developers room to move as they want. This is very much a 'labour of love' project. At Aerosoft we have the patience to wait.

RPS: What's been furrowing the team's brow this week?

Dante: HMS Hermes being remodelled to more current standards (as the base of RAF No.1 Squadron during the war, it's the carrier where all Harrier GR3 sorties will start). That's been  relatively easy. Much trickier has been solving a physics issue related to terrain. Since the terrain mesh was upgraded to fix a coastlines issue, a serious problem with collision detection has appeared. We've also been busy adding sophistication and variety to pilot deaths. Downed players will now encounter the following outcomes: Killed In Action, Ejected (Captured), Ejected (Rescued), each with respective GUI stats and screens. Previously this aspect of the sim was handled in a loose way, with pilot death not affecting game progress at all.

RPS: The Pucara is a wonderfully unusual beast. For those unfamiliar with it and its Falklands War contribution, can you describe a typical combat sortie?

Dante: It is indeed! Due to its sturdy construction and COIN (counter-insurgency role) it can operate close to the action, off the grass field at Goose Green. As we follow historical events, one of the missions will be to ferry Pucaras from Goose Green to Port Stanley as the airbase is threatened by the British advance. Following missions will utilize the more civilized 1500-meter tarmac runway at Port Stanley. A typical Pucara combat sortie will involve flying over the battlefield (good loiter time, close to the frontlines) using the famous "Mark I Eyeball" to spot targets of opportunity. Once spotted, targets can be dived on and pounded with 20mm shells and 2.75" rockets. During the battle of Goose Green, a British helicopter was shot down by a Pucara, making it the only confirmed Argentinian air-to-air kill. Helicopter hunting will be another typical sortie for them.

RPS: For years Jet Thunder development proceeded without a publisher. What difference has it made working with Aerosoft?

Dante: Being brutally honest here, getting Aerosoft involved prevented the project from becoming just another casualty. Let me explain: the vast majority of ambitious internet-based projects like this, don't get to see the light of day unless something radical happens like the involvement of a publisher There are countless examples in all game genres, but the flight sim genre is particularly prone to Perpetual Development Hell.

RPS: Is there any chance we'll be buzzing Mount Longdon and Port Stanley by Christmas?

Mathijs: Yes, clearly things didn't go as planned in the original schedule, but I will eat my tree if you're not cruising the cold skies over the Falklands by Christmas!

A Stone on Pebble Island

It looks like 2011 is going to go down as a pretty special year for gamers interested in South Atlantic skirmishing. The Poor Bloody Infantry that are hapless targets in Jet Thunder, are tactical tools in the recently released Squad Battles: Falklands.

John Tiller Software's 14th helping of SB isn't going to win any prizes for prettiness or innovation, but if it's rich, riveting wargaming you're after, it's definitely worth a shufti. Three scraps into my first campaign, a few features stand out as particularly noteworthy.

Battles are extremely easy to visualise. Because counters represent individual commanders, or small 2-10 man teams, that dislocation that's sometimes present in higher-level grog fodder, is pleasingly absent here. At times there's an almost Men of War feel to SBF. In my last scrap, in the space of a turn, one of my beleaguered Royal Marine Commandos dropped his SLR, picked up a Bren Gun from a dead comrade, and used it with deadly effect on a low-flying Argentinian helo gunship. Medal moments like this - as long as they remain within the bounds of the plausible - are one of the reasons I wargame.

Lethality levels, morale modelling and automatic TacAI responses all feel spot-on. Close-quarters exchanges tend to be brief and brutal. At longer ranges there's often a lot of lead flying around, but very little of it actually connects with anything. Not that casualties are always the name of the game. Leave your men under fire in exposed positions (and there's a helluva lot of exposed positions in the scarily treeless SBF) and pretty soon 'disrupted' turns to 'pinned' and 'pinned' becomes 'demoralized'. Offensive victories require wily use of terrain, smokescreens and artillery/air support, plus a healthy dollop of "Sod-this-grovelling-in-the-peat-Let's-get-up-and-at-them!".

The pair of campaigns are constructed from sequenced scenarios. It seems a staid approach until you realise that one of the carried-over counters is a beret-wearing, bullet-braving, avatar. If he/you gets a recoilless rifle round to the chest, or a FAL round to the head, it's curtains - campaign over.

I'd love to be able to steer you in the direction of a Squad Battles: Falklands demo. Sadly, that's not possible as JTS haven't got round to making one. You can't even get a taste via a trial of one of the other 13 titles in the series. Bafflingly, they are demo-less too. Dear Mr Tiller, you are sitting on a treasure trove of unusually accessible, uncommonly realistic, and (sometimes) exotically themed wargames. For your sake and ours, please consider providing a free scenario-sized chunk, or - even better - a multi-title sampler, so curious newcomers can recce with confidence.

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Tim Stone